A Dance Between Tradition and Change

Congregation Dorshei Emet is a more traditional-leaning Reconstructionist synagogue in Montreal. Members have always prided themselves on how they are able to dance between tradition and change. Most were proud to be part of the Reconstructionist movement, but many others were just as proud of how we also stood on the edges.

For the past few decades, we have used our own siddur, because the community felt that Kol Haneshama, the Reconstructionist siddur, made many liturgical changes that my predecessor felt went too far. When I joined the synagogue as rabbi eight years ago, we still had seven aliyot each week for the Torah reading, and we were one of the last in the movement to allow their rabbi to officiate at interfaith marriages.

I was able to help guide the community about policies regarding interfaith marriage through a values-based decision-making process, but the details of community ritual and minhag (custom) were much more difficult to change. The community could get used to interfaith marriage, but changing the number of people to be called up to the bimah for an aliyah was simply going too far! For the first few years of my time as the rabbi, I learned to discern the places where I could inspire movement forward and those where I wasn’t willing to risk it.

Some members were able to grow accustomed to interfaith marriage, but changing the number of people to be called up to the bimah for an aliyah was simply going too far!

And then the pandemic happened. Within days, our minhag committee voted to allow us to use computers and cameras on Shabbat so that we could stream services, and as a natural consequence, the services themselves had to change as well. People couldn’t sit for a full two hours staring at their screens, so we removed some prayers, adding more moments of “checking in,” and also, for the first time, had only three aliyot for the Torah service.

Not only were these changes welcomed, but we all gushed with pride as we saw how well we as a community evolved and reconstructed to fit the changing needs of the moment. In a city of mostly Orthodox synagogues, where so many communities started to have trouble holding themselves together, we were truly shining. And once the worst of the pandemic ended, some of these changes thankfully remained. Yes, some people are not happy with the changes, but overall as I see it, our synagogue was finally able to catch up with the rest of the movement. Today, we are still somewhat more traditional, but after seeing how flexibility and creativity can so beautifully hold a community together, now everyone with a smile can say, “We are Reconstructionist!” Still a bit on the edges in many ways, we also now are more deeply connected with the rest of the movement.

The story of my synagogue and its delicate pathway through change is not necessarily illustrative of how all synagogues have dealt with the evolution of Jewish community. Yet I think it is a key example of that core Reconstructionist idea of how much we make tradition part of the process. As any rabbi knows, no community is a perfect fit. There are always challenges and issues with minhagim or politics, and often simple clashes of personalities and leadership styles. Since I first connected with the Reconstructionist movement many decades ago, I have seen the movement go through many changes — not all with which I have agreed. Yet while I have sometimes been challenged by the details, I never once wavered from my connection with the core tenets of the movement. My Jewish life and my leadership as a rabbi have always been rooted in the importance of traditions as the starting point for all change, and our movement understands this well.

As a congregational rabbi, I especially appreciate the musar — the wisdom — that follows from my awareness that my role is to serve my community first before I necessarily serve myself. My personal set of values and my political views, no matter how much they may control my own decisions and life choices, must be tempered as I make decisions for the greater needs of my community. There have been many times that I have held back in a conversation because the more important goal is to make sure that people feel supported and honored in their own views. This is not to say that I do not offer forceful opinions and sometimes controversial ideas, but I need to always search for that line between where I need to stand up and where I need to let go.

My leadership as a rabbi has always been rooted in the importance of traditions as the starting point for all change, and our movement understands this well.

As I stood in front of my community after Oct. 7, I had to channel my own fears and anger through the filter of not just what I thought was right, but above all, what my community needed. More than ever before, I felt no choice but to truly honor that powerful definition of humility as taking up the “appropriate amount of space for any given situation.” In the months since that horrible day, I have learned well to resist the need I feel to place my own views front and center. In the process, I have learned as much from my community as they learned from me. This means that I have proudly maintained a progressive Zionist stance in a way that allows me to continue to gain strength from and connect with the wider Jewish community. At the same time, I have been able to express a progressive viewpoint that sensitively models other ways to think about how to move forward. As a rabbi, while I can’t say that I have any more answers about this specific situation than I did a few months ago, I have been proud to be the pastoral presence and the listening ear for my congregants, even more than I have been a purveyor of wisdom.

I do think this role of the rabbi as, above all, the supporter of our communities has been a bit weakened as our movement has evolved and changed over the years. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s vision of honoring the past and the traditions while delicately reconstructing change has clearly been challenged by the desire to be inclusive and respond to the needs of contemporary society. While I have always loved that wonderful catchphrase that we rabbis are “the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage,” I have also realized that in our rapidly changing world, this may be the time when we need to lean a bit more on the side of sage if it means opening up new pathways to traditions.

As with my response to the situation in Israel, even as we listen to the needs of our communities, we can lead them to a certain path forward to stand with pride and confidence as we speak for tradition. Sometimes, this means defining without hesitation the lines that cannot be crossed. It is not always easy to do this, but this confidence in the wisdom of our past and our tradition may be exactly what Judaism needs as it confronts a reality that sometimes is changing too fast. We can still be inclusive, still be creative and evolving, even as we say things that others, including those in our own movement, may not agree with.

As we reconstruct Jewish civilization slowly and thoughtfully, we can’t forget those important pillars that hold it all together. Egalitarianism, democracy, values-based decision-making and innovation are often cited as core pillars of the Reconstructionist approach. I definitely hold these values close. I see them as a necessary part of how we can keep our community strong into the future. Yet before I can even get to these values, for me to be a useful rabbi and a true representative of my movement, I have to see and to model the importance of tradition and ritual, of maintaining clear boundaries. I choose to demonstrate a connection to and support (and challenge) of the land and the people of Israel, and of scholarship and wisdom rooted in the texts of our past along with contemporary interpretation. I want to remain close to the rootedness that Kaplan hoped to create through his vision of reconstructing Judaism.

One of the greatest blessings I have enjoyed recently as a rabbi has been the students in my conversion class. Most likely brought on by the emotional and spiritual challenges of the pandemic, last year, a surprisingly large group of people registered for our conversion/introduction to Judaism class. The group of more than 25 people was so large that we were forced to meet in the sanctuary. The wonderfully diverse group of young couples, queer folks, longtime members and a few spiritually curious wanderers joined in great conversation and learning over the year. Usually, as a good Reconstructionist rabbi, I organized the class around the core traditions, history and ideas of Jewish life, but also just as much the ways that these traditions have evolved. Interestingly, this time around however, I found a very real and deep desire among the students to focus more on the traditions and less on the “evolving.” Each time I offered liberal interpretations of traditional ideas and texts, they steered me back to the peshat (plain meaning) of our topic. Sometimes, we need sometimes to teach and model living the traditions and the values before we move change them.

The unique nature of the current moment — from the lingering spiritual effects of the pandemic to the earthquake brought on by the war in Israel — demands a new understanding of what it means to be “rooted in tradition.” While we can feel that our strength will come from letting the branches of wisdom extend even further as we open more space to be inclusive, we also need to dig deeper and allow the roots of our faith and culture also grow so that we can be even more stable. As our movement and our world enters a new stage in its journey, I will do my best to first grow closer to the past even as we evolve to fit the needs of the present moment.

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